Monthly Archives: December 2014

Representing Diversity on 2014 YA Book Covers

By Malinda Lo

Representing non-white, non-straight, disabled characters on a book cover is a complicated thing to do well. A book cover must represent the story told in the book, of course, but it also must speak to genre (a science fiction cover looks quite different from a romance cover) and work for both online booksellers and brick-and-mortar bookstores. A good book cover grabs your attention from across the shop — or stands out legibly in thumbprint-sized images online.

Making things even more complicated is the fact that not all people of a particular race/ethnicity look like stereotypical images of that race/ethnicity. For example, not all people who are “Asian” look like stereotypical images of Asians, which are dominated by often Orientalist stereotypes of Chinese or Japanese people. Asia itself is huge and contains many more nations than China and Japan, and translating a specific character into an image that can be read as “Asian” by people who aren’t familiar with that specific character’s heritage can sometimes fail.

The following images are 2014 book covers that feature main characters of non-white descent, disabled characters, LGBT characters, and covers that suggest non-Western cultures. There is a wide range of representations of characters, from full-face head shots to images of a character’s back or silhouette. Not all images may read as non-white to every reader/viewer, but the question is: Does an image need to read exactly the same way to every reader/viewer?

Obviously, sometimes images of non-white people have been whitewashed on book covers, and that is problematic. But is there a gray area between full-face photographic images of a non-white person, and the wrong that is whitewashing? Is it possible to be more subtle in representing diversity while still speaking to those who are able to read those images clearly?

The fact is: not every book is best represented by a full-face photograph or illustration. Also, many readers don’t like to be confronted with pictures of the characters in the books; they like to cast these characters themselves, in their heads, while they read. And as I stated above, ethnic identity isn’t always clearly recognizable to everyone. I think it’s interesting to look at the entire year’s crop of representations of minorities on book covers to gain some perspective on how identity is depicted in different ways.

People of Color

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Native and Indigenous Peoples

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Disabilities

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LGBT People

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Representations of Non-Western Cultures

There is another way to represent non-white and specifically non-Western characters on a book cover: using an image that suggests the non-Western culture that the character lives in.

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A Diverse Cast

One book that was published this year depicts a number of non-white characters, and fittingly, it was written by Walter Dean Myers, one of publishing’s greatest advocates of diversity.

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Which covers work for you? Which covers do you have problems with?

2014 Holiday Gift Guide

For the last two and a half weeks we’ve been posting our Holiday Gift Guide daily on tumblr. Here’s our baker’s dozen of gift-shopping suggestions rounded up in one big post for your shopping and reading convenience! Happy reading, everyone!

2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers

By Malinda Lo

For the last three years I’ve been tracking the number of young adult novels about LGBT1 characters. Here are my statistics from 2011, 2012, and 2013, as well as an overview of LGBT YA published by mainstream publishers from 2003–13. Anyone who reads these posts can see that the topics I’ve been interested in unpacking have changed and focused, my methodology has been refined, and the language I’ve used to describe gender has evolved as I’ve learned more and as the language itself has evolved.

I use the term “LGBT YA” to identify a young adult book with an LGBT main character or that has a plot primarily concerned with LGBT issues. Some books have multiple main characters, and if one of that cast of primary characters is LGBT, I also count that book as an LGBT YA book (e.g., Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater). In the cases of books about LGBT issues, those issues typically focus around a straight person’s relationship with an LGBT person who comes out to them (e.g., The Boy I Love by Nina de Gramont). I do not include YA books with supporting LGBT characters because I think it’s important to focus on books where the LGBT person is the star of the story, but I recognize that the dividing line between supporting and main can be pretty blurry. Nor do I include YA books that have subtextual gay story lines (e.g., The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin; and more recently, Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry), because I’m focused on books where the gay story line is overt. (In other words, I’m tracking openly gay YA!) That means I may have left out some YA titles that others would count as “LGBT YA,” either on purpose or by accident.

LGBT YA is published by several different kinds of publishers ranging from small independent presses and LGBT-specific publishers to major global conglomerates. I am primarily interested in books published by mainstream publishers. By “mainstream” I mean the Big 5 publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster), as well as general interest publishers that do not focus on LGBT books. These general interest publishers include: Akashic Books, Algonquin Young Readers, Amulet, Big Bang Press, Bloomsbury, Booktrope Editions, Candlewick, Carolrhoda Lab, Flux, Harlequin Teen, K-Teen, Merit, Ooligan Press, Pulp, Red Deer Press, Scholastic, Sky Pony Press, Sourcebooks Fire, Spencer Hill Press, and Strange Chemistry.

In 2014, mainstream publishers published 47 LGBT YA books. This is a 59% increase from 2013, when only 29 LGBT YA books were published by mainstream publishers.

The category of “mainstream publishers” includes tiny presses like Big Bang, a startup with only one book out, as well as global giants like Penguin Random House; they don’t always have the same resources or the same distribution levels. That’s why, when I did my analysis of LGBT YA from 2003–13, I focused on “major commercial publishers.” That was an attempt to look at the biggest producers of YA books — they truly aim to reach the masses, which I think is something important to think about. In my analysis, major commercial publishers are the Big 5 plus three major US publishers: Disney Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic.

In 2014, out of those 47 LGBT YA books, 24 or 52% were published by major commercial publishers. The other 23 or 48% were published by small publishers.

(Edited 12/10/14, 1 PM: Initially my math was wrong on the above statement because I’d accidentally omitted one title. It has now been corrected above, as well as in the third chart below.)

This year I’ve chosen not to analyze the output of LGBT publishers simply because they produce too many titles for me to manage. I think that LGBT presses still play an important role in producing stories about LGBT experiences, but since my interest lies in analyzing mainstream production of LGBT books, they fall outside the scope of this project at this time. For those who are interested in looking at how LGBT presses represent LGBT experiences, I encourage you to look up the catalogs of Bold Strokes Books, one of the leading publishers of LGBT fiction, as well as Harmony Ink Press and Queerteen Press. I don’t know how many LGBT YA titles Queerteen Press released in 2014 (it was hard to tell from their website), but Harmony Ink informed me via email that they released 52 YA books this year. Bold Strokes Books published 15, and Lethe Press released at least one title (Red Caps, a collection of fantasy short stories by Steve Berman), adding up to at least 68 YA books published by LGBT presses in 2014. Continue reading 2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers


  1. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. It is currently most widely accepted English term used to identify sexual and gender minorities, but its initials omit other identies such as queer, intersex, asexual, and more. While I could add more initials (e.g., LGBTQQIA+) or use a term such as QUILTBAG, I believe that would simply be too confusing for the general reader, so I’ve chosen to follow the standards in the GLAAD Media Reference Guide – AP and New York Times Style

Revolutionary Diversity

Rebels by Accident is about an Egyptian-American teen in Cairo during the revolutionary protests of the Arab Spring.

By Patricia Dunn

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The Egyptian youth led their people into revolution so that I could write Rebels by Accident. Ok, maybe it’s not really all about me, but it was during the Arab Spring when the youth of Egypt took to the streets in protest of the thirty years of repression and censorship under the Mubarak regime that inspired me to finish Rebels by Accident. However, the inspiration for starting the book was my son Ali, who like the central character, Mariam, is an American-Egyptian-Muslim who had been bullied by other kids.

When called “son of Bin Laden,” hit on the head, and ordered to go back to where he came from — even though he was in the same New York suburbs where he was born — Ali had no problem speaking up for himself. Ali is clear about who he is and proud of his cultural identity. This incident helped me to discover that there are many kids who struggle with their cultural identities and often try to hide from the world. I wanted to write a story about how an Egyptian-American teen living in our post 9/11 world, disconnected from her culture, figures out what it means to be Egyptian and American.

I think all books of fiction, even fantasies, draw from reality and life and try to capture, in some way, the essence of our humanity. Some stories take place in the future or the past, and others depict events that are happening in the times in which we live. Rebels by Accident is a book written about a time when the teens in Egypt were using social media like Facebook to organize and speak up against the injustices they saw in their society. Yes, they were talking about music and clothing and other things that teens talk to each other about, but they were also talking about protesting in support of workers’ rights, and against government corruption and the horror of people starving while waiting in line for bread, and against censorship — some of the same struggles we experience here in our own country.

At its core this book is about revolution — the kind that happen out in the streets as well as the ones that happen inside us.

I think diversity is important in all literature but especially in YA. As a kid I grew up in a small town called the Bronx. Everyone in my immediate neighborhood was originally from Italy. My family was the “Americans” on the block. So I grew up knowing that I was different, but it was because of the stories that I read, the books I would lose myself in, books recommended to me by my school and neighborhood librarians, that I learned there was a whole world full of people who were “different,” and different was not bad, it was good, very good.

These differences made the world a place I wanted to explore and ironically, the more I did, the more I traveled, the more I learned that as diverse as we are, we also have so much in common. It’s our need to love and be loved that makes us all one people. I think so much of the hate that exists in the world, exists out of fear, fear of the unknown. I believe the more we learn about other cultures the more we grow as people, and that the more understanding we are of what we once feared, the more we find ourselves welcoming into our homes. The optimistic teen in me will forever believe that to change the world you start with one person, one voice, one story, and then you go from there. As my friend Hassan in Morocco says, “step by step.”

My hope is that Rebels by Accident will help readers to see that it’s our differences that make the world full of wonder.


patriciadunn175Patricia Dunn has appeared in Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor, the Village Voice, the Nation, LA Weekly, and others. With an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, where she also teaches and is the Director of the Writing Institute, this Bronx-raised rebel and former resident of Cairo settled in Connecticut, with her husband, teenage son, and toddler dog. Visit Patricia at http://ift.tt/1wpBfAg.

Rebels by Accident is now available.

A Mistake in The Shadow Hero

Gene Luen Yang, who most recently won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in young adult literature for his graphic novels Boxers and Saints, discusses a mistake he made in his latest novel, The Shadow Hero.

By Gene Luen Yang

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Gene Luen Yang began drawing comic books in the fifth grade. He has since written and drawn a number of titles, including the comics series Avatar: The Last Airbender. American Born Chinese, his first graphic novel from First Second, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award. He also won the LA Times Book Prize for Boxers & Saints. Yang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Political Agendas, Norse Gods, and the United States (of Asgard)

Tessa Gratton’s new novellas in her United States of Asgard fantasy series tackle queer identity and race head on.

By Tessa Gratton

gratton-goldrunnerAll my books are about politics. If you write about people engaging with their world, so are yours.

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I joke about being the person you shouldn’t invite to dinner because all I do is talk about religion and politics, but that’s because on some fundamental level I believe there’s nothing else to talk about. Politics is how we govern ourselves; personally, within our families, communities, nationally. Every action we take has political ramifications: not just who we kiss, who we indict, who we elect, but also where we shop, whether we rent or buy, what we major in, whether we go to school at all, who we call when we need help, how we die.

But Tessa, how is where I shop political? Well, every decision from why a specific site was chosen for a specific store to where that store sources its potatoes is a political one. What communities have nice grocery stores and what communities have tiny convenience stores? Who has access to farmers markets, who has access to fast food? Who bags your groceries? Which workers have health insurance? What meat packing plant provides those chickens and did they cut off their beaks? Who can afford to buy organic? Maybe you think about all these things, maybe you just run in for a basket of strawberries (who harvested those strawberries?), but regardless of your conscious participation, there are political consequences to where/how/when you get your food and where that money goes.

Everything is politics.

That’s especially true for the books we read and the stories we tell.

Back when I was in grad school, trying to learn how to fix the world through feminism and activism, I was so frustrated with American politics that I quit school. I didn’t believe anymore that I could make anything better through academics or in policy or government. What other way could I try to make the world a better place for everybody? How could I even begin?

I realized it was books that changed me more than anything else on its own. They helped me understand my world and helped me see other human beings — especially humans different than myself. That’s what I wanted — and still want — to do. There are many reasons to write stories and probably all of them are valid ones. Mine is ambitious: I want to change the world.

That’s why I created The United States of Asgard, the world that’s introduced in my novel The Lost Sun. The USAsgard is this giant metaphor for American culture that lets me talk about stuff in ways I couldn’t if I was just writing about USA as it is instead of an alternate version founded by Vikings and their gods. It’s an America where the warrior culture is front-and-center, where politics and religion are overtly determined by violence and money and living gods. It’s full of larger-than-life characters I can use to play out stories that center around those “taboo” topics that I’m so desperate to come to your house and talk to you about over dinner.

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Sometimes I start writing a book because of an image or “what if” question, sometimes I start with a character’s conflict. But to be honest, the idea that became the novella Gold Runner started with a political agenda.

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I originally imaged the USAsgard series as five books, each one about a teenaged narrator involved intimately with one of the major gods and what that god stands for. The gods were: Baldur, Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya.

Baldur’s book (The Lost Sun) is about a boy learning what to believe in when his friends, family, society, nation, tell him he is not deserving of life, trust, love. It’s about being an outcast and finding hope. Odin’s book (The Strange Maid) is about a girl taking ambition and power into her own hands despite teen girls not being supposed to want or care for those things. Freya’s book (The Apple Throne, coming in April 2015) is about a girl taking the power to shape destiny out of the hands of authority and making that power her own. Loki’s book is a novella now, Lady Berserk, and is less about Loki and more about a young girl discovering she loves herself because of the dragon in her heart, not despite it.

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I always knew, even when the books were hard or revision was killing me, that those were the core issues I needed to discuss with regards to those themes/gods and American politics/society.

But Thor was always difficult because I thought he was boring. In the Norse mythology, Thor represents family, family values, strength and loyalty and protection. I prefer the gods of war and poetry and sacrifice and sex. Then I realized Thor also tends to be the butt of sexual and gendered jokes. One time he’s forced to dress up like the goddess Freya and marry a giant in order to get his hammer back (seriously) and this other time he’s defeated by a giantess who basically drowns him with her menstrual blood (SERIOUSLY).

It finally, finally dawned on me that I needed to confront Thor head on in every possible way.

Though there’s a lot of world building in the United States of Asgard series that reveals some of the ways that queer identities and communities exist in the USAsgard (especially through that most gender-fluid of gods Loki and his followers) none of the three novels is narrated by an explicitly queer character. Signy of The Strange Maid would probably argue otherwise on her own behalf, but it’s not part of her story or self-identity.

I wanted to write a story in this world narrated by a queer person. Wouldn’t Thor hate that.

So that’s where I very purposefully and politically started Gold Runner. A thematic place of confrontation: confrontation with all the traditional values Thor represents. In the USAsgard (and the USA) those values are very white and very straight.

Amon, Thor’s son, is Black (or rather, Amon is the social, political, racial USAsgard equivalent of being Black in America). The world looks at Amon and sees the lightning eyes he inherited from his father in the dark face of his Black human mother — a constant reminder that Amon is not Thor’s son by his goddess wife or even by a mortal woman who looks like the elite, white Asgardian society. Amon literally embodies — through no doing or consent of his own — political conflict.

But he’s aware of that conflict playing out on and in him. It’s part of why he’s struggling with whether or not he’s bisexual (spoiler: he totally is). He’s the son of the straightest, most overtly heterosexual god in New Asgard, and was raised to be suspicious of the gender-fluidity of the Lokiskin or the so-called “rampant homosexuality” in Odinist ranks. Despite his other rebellions, this one hits him uncomfortably close to the heart of what he resents so much about Thor: the god’s sexual hypocrisy. He can’t forget he’s the son of family values, the son of a god of loyalty who regularly has affairs with women not his wife. And Amon knows that if he acts on his desires it will bring a whole new level of political and personal trouble down on him.

I knew all of that before I even began to find a story for Amon to tell. Turns out it’s a wild tale of stolen elf gold and shape-shifting and kissing. (My stories are always also about kissing.) (Kissing is my favorite politics.)

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All books are political, and the act of writing is political, but it’s easy to forget that, or to pretend otherwise if you’re privileged enough. I choose again and again every day to not forget, to not pretend. It’s hard thinking about politics constantly and not shying away from hard choices. I’ve made good ones and bad ones, and sometimes those bad ones horrify me when I realize it later. Sometimes I catch myself being afraid or lazy, and I hope I haven’t let too many such moments slip past my notice. All I know is that in order to write the kind of story that has even the slightest chance of connecting to readers in the complicated, political, meaningful way I want to, I have to keep honestly trying.


tessagratton200wTessa Gratton has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven. Alas, she turned out too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching for a someone to teach her magic. After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in Gender Studies, then settled down in Kansas with her partner, her cats, and her mutant dog. She now spends her days staring at the sky and telling stories about monsters, magic, and teenagers. Visit her at tessagratton.com, @tessagrattontessagratton.tumblr.com.

Gold Runner is now available. All three United States of Asgard novellas are also available as a compilation, The Weight of Stars.